Photo by "mrchickendog"
Of all the plants that the native peoples of the Andes domesticated for food, the potato has wandered the most. Four centuries after leaving home, it is the fourth largest crop in the world, with China and India growing a third of the total harvest. Pretty good for a humble tuber. But what’s most impressive to me is the ten thousand years of cultivation in the Andes that came before the potato went abroad. I wonder if we modern folks will domesticate a plant of our own. Does anybody know of such a project?
To the botanist the potato is a tuber - a swollen portion of an underground stem. Lots of plants have underground stems. Most tunnel for a while and then turn upward, rise to meet the sun, and make a new plant. But potato stems stay underground and make a new plant at their tips in the form of a potato. No doubt the tubers were small when the first people discovered them ten thousand years ago, but centuries of domestication made them manyfold larger.
If the botany of a potato intrigues you, there’s more in this blog post: Plants, Man and Life.
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